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Curtis Stigers: Let’s Go Out Tonight(Profile/Biography)

United States
Though jazz has been integral to Curtis Stigers’ musical vocabulary throughout his career, his transformation from rock/pop headliner (of the sort that filled stadiums and made Leno and Letterman appearances) to jazz vocalist is barely a decade old, dating from the release of his debut Concord album Baby Plays Around in 2001.

Stigers is often placed at the forefront of post-millennial jazz singers, but isn’t a pure jazz artist in the tradition of, say, Mark Murphy or Mel Tormé. Nor does he want to be. Critical to his unique vocal style and his inimitable interpretative skills is his ability to draw upon his checkered professional past and his wide-ranging musical tastes to synthesize myriad influences, coloring tracks with various shades of pop, country, folk, blues and classic R&B. Asked about his staunch refusal to be compartmentalized, Stigers laughs and says, “I keep poking my foot through the side of the box. I’m interested in finding a place that’s a no-man’s land between the genres. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I think it’s my greatest strength, but in terms of the marketplace, it can also be considered a liability. Still, I’ve gotta be me!”

Never have Stigers’ genre-blurring instincts been more sharply defined than on his latest album, Let’s Go Out Tonight (his 7th for Concord, due April 24). Stigers also describes it as, “probably the most autobiographical album I’ve ever made. It hits so many places I’ve been and things I’ve gone through and am currently going through.” Ironically, given its deeply personal nature, Let’s Go Out Tonight is the first album since 2003’s You Inspire Me that includes no original Stigers tunes. While shaping the playlist with producer Larry Klein, Stigers says he, “played him a few songs I’d written, but I hadn’t been writing that much. It’s been a tumultuous year, and I haven’t been able to focus on songwriting. He didn’t think the ones I played for him fit in with what we were going for, and I had to agree with him.” Instead, Stigers and Klein each drew up long lists of song possibilities. “Then,” Stigers explains, “I started flying down to L.A. [from Boise, Idaho, his birthplace and once again, after many years in New York, his hometown] every couple of weeks and we’d play songs for each other. He came up with a lot of songs, but I came up with a lot, too; and we ended up using more of my suggestions, which I’m very happy about. They’re songs I’ve had in my back pocket for years and have always wanted to record. So, in a way, it feels like I wrote the album anyway.”

Let’s Go Out Tonight is also the first of Stigers’ Concord albums to completely sidestep the Great American Songbook. Instead, he surveys a vibrant cross-section of pop, folk, country and soul songwriters, ranging from Bob Dylan, Eddie Floyd and Richard Thompson to Jeff Tweedy, Hayes Carll and David Poe, whose “Everyone Loves Lovers” was crafted expressly for Stigers.

Working with Klein is a big departure for Stigers, who has self-produced or co-produced all six of his previous Concord albums. “It was,” he says, “a totally different experience. On my recent albums, I’ve gladly given [keyboardist] Larry Goldings and [trumpeter] John “Scrapper” Sneider co-producer credits, but because I’m a perfectionist and a control freak, usually it was me calling all the shots while greedily tapping into their geniuses for arrangements.”

Stigers’ collaboration with Klein is, in fact, more than a dozen years in the making. “I first met Larry years ago,” he says. “We talked about making a record back in 1998. I had just left Arista and went over to Columbia for one album [Brighter Days], and talked to Larry about maybe producing that record. But he’d heard my jazz tapes, which eventually became Baby Plays Around, and was already thinking in terms of a jazz record. I wasn’t ready for that, I wanted to make my singer-songwriter record. Now, 14 years later, we’ve finally made an album.” Stigers’ eagerness to align himself with Klein was, he says, “particularly because of the way the albums he’s done for Madeleine Peyroux sound. Those albums are amazing, and it was one specific track, her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” that made me want to work with him. Every time I hear that, it kills me. It’s a classic pop record, but clearly has jazz elements, and there’s a little classic rhythm and blues. What I like is that it’s not trying to prove it’s jazz, and at the same time doesn’t sound like it’s trying to get played on the radio alongside Maroon 5 and Lady Gaga. It’s just great music in the way that Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole made great music, and that’s what I wanted for my album.”

A lifelong Bob Dylan fan, Stigers opens Let’s Go Out Tonight with “Things Have Changed,” Dylan’s Oscar-winning song from the film Wonder Boys. “That was one of the songs Larry brought in,” says Stigers. “I’m such Dylan fan, and a Michael Chabon fan too, but at first I was skeptical that I could sing it convincingly. It’s so different from what I usually sing. Then I started really listening to the words and it hit me on a deeply personal level. For me, the lyric is from the point of view of a guy who’s been beaten up emotionally and has nearly given up, and then suddenly says, ‘hey, wait a minute!’ The past couple years have been a period of great change for me, and I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, so it hit me really hard. It’s so pithy and funny, yet also so real and heartbreaking.”

The David Poe song, on which Poe sings harmony, is, says Stigers, “A song I wish I’d written. Instead, David wrote it for me to sing, after hearing me play at The Blue Note in New York. It’s sweet and romantic, until you get to the part where it kicks you in the stomach. I love that brutal twist. We’ve all been there. No matter how perfect a relationship seems, there’s always a place down the road where it’s going to get rocky. Eventually we all end up alone.”

From the Eddie Floyd canon, Stigers selected the relatively obscure “Oh How It Rained,” originally recorded by Floyd in 1971. “Floyd’s version is,” says Stigers, “sort of alternative soul. It’s about as gritty and messy a soul record as I’ve heard. It seems almost unarranged. I was drawn to it because of that. My album needed to be more than a bunch of sad songs. It needed some soul, some groove and grittiness. I kept talking to Larry about the fact that, though we were making a very restrained, quiet album, we also needed to recognize that there’s a lot of Ray Charles’ influence in my sound, and a lot of B.B. King and Albert King in there, too.”

Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” was a song that both Stigers and Klein had included on their original lists. “I always thought of this as a heartbreaking song about Steve Earle being a junkie and destroying his life for a while, before he cleaned up,” says Stigers. “I wasn’t quite sure how to find a place for myself in this song; and it wasn’t until I got into the studio and started singing it with this band that I realized the song is about me. We all spend periods of our lives numbing ourselves to block out what’s going on around us. I spent an unhealthy amount of my adult life doing that in different ways. So, all of a sudden this song about a crack-smoking, self-destructive mess fit me like a glove. It was a little scary how easily it fit.”

Neil Finn’s “Into Temptation” is, says Stigers, “so sexy. Give me a song about sex any day of the week. But, even though it’s about falling into sexual temptation, it’s also a beautiful love song. He knows that it’s more than just a tryst. It’s the beginnings of a real love affair. It’s also really cinematic. I always see this song as a little movie.”

It was Klein who suggested “This Bitter Earth,” a song strongly associated with Dinah Washington. “I figured there was an expectation for me to sing standards,” says Stigers, “so Larry came back with this. But it’s not really a standard, just a song made famous by someone who sang standards. It’s an odd song, rather like R&B poetry. It’s not a love song, but it’s not a torch song either, because it’s about hope. I love the way the arrangement turned out. When Dinah Washington did it, it was an orchestral jazz/R&B thing, but ours is kind of like Patsy Cline on acid.”

Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing’s for Dreamers” was, says Stigers, “a song I’ve loved for ages and ages, and I’d considered recording it, but I could never quite find the right approach. Then Richard’s son, Teddy Thompson, came to Boise for a solo gig, and it was fantastic. After the show, I went backstage and introduced myself. I told him I’d always wanted to do one of his father’s songs, but finding the right one for a jazz record had been a challenge for me. And without skipping a beat he said, ‘Waltzing’s for Dreamers.’ I played it for Larry, and he agreed. To me, this is a classic saloon song, an old-fashioned heartbreaker, with a touch of Richard Thompson poetry. It’s gorgeous, and sad as hell.”

“Chances Are” (not to be confused with the Johnny Mathis ballad) comes from Austin, Texas-based, alt-country singer/songwriter Hayes Carll. “I was thrilled to find a song by somebody as contemporary and cool as Hayes Carll,” says Stigers. “It’s a beautiful love song about a guy in a barroom who’s seen better days, had a lot of hard knocks, and he sees a woman he knows across the bar and wonders if maybe she can save him. It’s got a bit of self-pity in it, and I’m no stranger to that!”

“You Are Not Alone” was written by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for Mavis Staples, as the title track for an album Tweedy produced for her two years ago. “I adore that Mavis album, and this is the song from that album that speaks to me most,” says Stigers. “I’ve sent MP3s of her version to five different friends in the past year, all of whom were going through a tough time, either as a result of a break-up or a loss. It’s such an affirmation of life and makes such a strong statement about love and support. Every time I’ve shared it with someone, it’s gotten the most amazing response. I sang it with a lot of inspiration from Mavis, because I love her voice and her singing so much.”

Stigers closes with the title track, which was, he says, “one that Larry brought in. I’ve been a fan of The Blue Nile since their first album. Everything they’ve recorded is so understated and haunting. Basically, this song is about that unfortunate place that a relationship gets to, where you know everything is broken but all you want to do is pretend that it’s not. I spent years doing that. It’s about the saddest thing I can think of, and every time I hear it, I get choked up.”

Apart from Larry Goldings and John “Scrapper” Sneider, Let’s Go Out Tonight features a cross-section of players who are new to Stigers’ recordings. “I have a fantastic band that I tour with and made my last couple of albums with, and will continue to make albums with,” he says, “but I wanted this to sound like a Larry Klein production, and the idea of telling him, ‘You’ve got to use musicians you’ve never worked with to make the record that you’re hearing in your head’ seemed counter-intuitive.” Of drummer Jay Bellarose, bassists David Piltch and Kaveh Rastegar, guitarist Dean Parks and keyboardist Patrick Warren, Stigers says, “these are people I was incredibly excited to work with. Jay isn’t just a drummer; he doesn’t just play the beat. His playing is so atmospheric, so musical. Every time I listen to the record another amazing thing he’s done jumps out at me.

“David Piltch has played bass on so many albums I love. He is a great musician and a great character. He was supposed to be there for all three days we were in the studio, but there was a scheduling conflict, so Larry brought in Kaveh Rastegar for a day, and he did a wonderful job. Kaveh’s in a jazz group from L.A. called Kneebody that’s making a lot of waves, and really pushing musical boundaries.

“Dean Parks is someone I’ve known about since listening to Steely Dan records in my basement when I was 12. This is a guy who can burn like Wes Montgomery or Joe Pass but also play rock ‘n’ roll and everything in between. He’s played so many iconic guitar parts on record. And he can play pedal steel and lap steel and sublime acoustic guitar parts. I was honored and inspired to play with Dean.

“You’d expect that the piano on this album would be mostly Larry Goldings, but he tended to play organ. He only played piano on a couple of tracks. The rest is all Patrick Warren, who is sort of like a mad scientist who plays these unbelievably twisted sounds — a very musical guy who spontaneously creates beautifully crafted parts as though he’d been composing them for weeks.

“Larry Goldings played on the Madeline Peyroux album I loved, so the first thing I said to Larry Klein was that I’d love to have Larry Goldings on this record, and he said, ‘Of course.’ Larry has been involved, as a player or songwriter, on all of my [Concord] albums. He is such a brilliant B3 player. He plays like no one else. Then there’s John Sneider, my trumpet player. Scrapper could stand toe-to-toe with any of the great jazz trumpeters. He’s got the chops, the technique. But he can also tone it down and just play two notes that will rip your heart out. On this album it’s minimalist Scrapper, channeling his inner Miles Davis and going for emotion. It sounds so vulnerable.”

The eighth player on the album is Stigers himself, doubling on tenor sax. “I’m not really a jazz sax player,” he laughingly admits. “I would love to be Dexter Gordon or Hank Mobley, but my sax playing is rough around the edges and scruffy, like a drunken old-school rhythm and blues player. That was perfect for this album, because Larry [Klein] sort of wanted a sound like a homeless guy mumbling in the background, which is precisely what my sax playing is like!”

As Stigers’ second decade as a Concord artist dawns with Let’s Go Out Tonight, he reflects on his history with the label, noting that, “It has been a richly rewarding ten years for me. They’ve allowed me to figure out who I am as an artist. They’ve always supported me and encouraged me to follow my muse, to make beautiful music, and perhaps even art.
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